Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Homesteader or Gentrifier?

The 40th Anniversary issue of New York magazine arrived in the mail yesterday and there is a wonderful article by Jay McInerney titled "Yuppies in Eden." McInerney writes about the rise of the young urban professional in 1980's New York and the crises of conscience over who, exactly, constituted a Yuppie:
"Did gym membership qualify you as a yuppie? Snorting coke? Eating raw fish? When I heard a movie agent slinging the term at a group of bankers at the Odeon, I wondered about pots and kettles."
McInerney writes about the changes in city neighborhoods, which went from clearly defined, parochial patches—Italians in Little Italy, Ukrainians in the East Village, Wasps on the Upper East Side, African Americans in Harlem—to swiftly blurring, rent-rising playgrounds for the newly affluent.
"In 1980, it became clear that New York had pulled up its socks and reversed the fiscal, physical, and psychic dilapidation of the seventies. The stock market began a steady ascent, which created new jobs on Wall Street. At some point, the influx of ambitious young strivers started to exceed the exodus, and while many of them gravitated toward the traditionally bourgeois neighborhoods of the Upper East Side, others began to reclaim the housing stock of previously marginal or downright dangerous areas like upper Amsterdam and Columbus, or to colonize old factory buildings in nonresidential neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca and the East Village. When artists did this, it was called homesteading. When people whose day jobs required them to wear leather shoes (yuppies) followed the artists, it was called gentrification."

The writer raises an interesting point: what distinguishes homesteading from gentrification?

If Wikipedia is to be believed, homesteading implies limited resources and ingenuity, with a modern twist towards agrarian sustainability.
"A new movement, called 'urban homesteading,' can be viewed as a simple living lifestyle, incorporating small-scale agriculture, sustainable and permaculture gardening, and home food production and storage into suburban or city living.

Homesteading may also refer to the practice of squatting — occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space or building that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have permission to use."
Gentrification is defined by Webster's as " the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents." (their official definition of homesteader: "to acquire or occupy as a homestead ; to acquire or settle on land under a homestead law.")

So part of the distinction, clearly, is money. Or is it? You could argue that this new evolution of "sustainable" and back-to-the-earth homesteading in cities is more often predicated on a level of disposable income and cultural choice rather than a real need to live lean (perhaps more akin to David Brooks's cousin of the yuppie, the BoBo and their offspring, the Hipster). Part of the challenge in deciphering which is which may come from the slippery definition of what, exactly, it means to be middle class. In 2007, the government defined poverty as an annual income under $20,650 for a family of four. As for middle class, the government has remained largely mute, though according to public radio reporter Tess Vigeland, the Congressional Research Service issued a report last year putting middle class income as between $19,000 a year and $91,000 a year. Uh. OK. You can apparently be poor and middle class.

My husband, Matt, lived in a warehouse in a neighborhood called Station North for years. He and his friends took a raw room and transformed it with framing and drywall into a shared space for several roommates. They installed their own kitchen. (Matt had two trips to the emergency room for stitches in one week.) They lived in a building with artists, writers, musicians. I wrote about Station North and the possibility of the Soho effect there. My research into that story made me question the complex layers of ownership in poorer urban communities. The original residents resented the artists, the artists resented the newer professionals coming in with a little more money, and yet many of those very artists were seeing careers take them into higher tax brackets. It's that very pot and kettle comparison that
McInerney raises above: when does the homesteader become the gentrifier?

I'll admit a personal agenda when it comes to this topic. I've sometimes wondered which I am: a homesteader or a gentrifier. I am loathe to be the latter, but ask my neighbors, and they might peg me as the Big G. In 2004, I bought a stone mill house built in the 1840s in a city neighborhood. Most of my neighbors have lived on my street for decades. My house, like many on the block, had layers and layers of DIY home repairs, like lots of sloppy mortar patching. I spent the better part of 2005 updating it (and undoing the years of questionable fixes). The house needed new electrical wiring, plumbing, and fresh joists in the rotting first floor. I was the first on the street to bring a gas line into my home. The first to install central air and heating. My kitchen is modern, with custom made concrete counter (a necessity, actually, because the odd shape of the room didn't allow for off the shelf solutions).

I served as my own general contractor and hired out friends and professionals to do the work. So maybe that's clue #1 that I'm a gentrifier: the funds to hire help. If we are to use the definition of middle class above, my income has fallen into that 19,000-91,000 range, though I am sad to say it's frequently fallen on the lower end of the scale. I would never qualify myself as "affluent." And as anyone who has been to my yet-to-be-finished home lately can attest, I quickly ran out of the freedom to hire outside help.

If the "displacing poorer residents" part of the definition is key to my being the evil G, then I'm OK. I've displaced no one. I bought the house after the owner passed away. And if anything, the neighbors find it funny how much I paid to live here. When I first moved in, an older woman named Cleo asked me the sale price. "You didn't pay more than $40,000 for it did you?" She's lived here awhile. When I told her the amount—which I took for a bargain—she whistled and shook her head.

So moving beyond money, perhaps the definition is more hinged on intent and lifestyle. I'm not a Flipper (who can be in this day and age?); I have no plans on leaving soon. I'm invested in the neighborhood. But as my husband once jokingly said to me during one of our early dates, "I can't afford your Pellegrino lifestyle." I have five difference kinds of cooking oil. But I've also got a temporary staircase made out of paperclips and glue (well, wood and hinges, but it's an adventure climbing it).

Homesteader or gentrifier?

Anytime I call in a professional to fix a problem, anytime I unload groceries in my reuseable Whole Foods bags, I begin to wonder...

Though maybe I should just let myself off the hook and say, simply, "homeowner."